11 October 2010

"Sawdust, Spangles & Dreams"

compiled by Teresa Martin Klaiber
October 2010

Genealogists come from all walks of life. Like other fields, genealogists have their own network. Within that network I am known by some through my research business, Family Lineage Investigations; some through genealogy organizations; others recognize me during my time as a staff genealogist for the Boyd Library; or by many simply as the cemetery lady. But I also have another past.

My past is full of wonderful animals, and to borrow from the musical Jumbo, it has had a share of "Sawdust, Spangles & Dreams."

While Eastern Kentucky is well known for the Country Western Highway and music entertainers, our area is rich with other performers as well.

My first memory of a big top was as little more than a toddler when Coles Brothers Circus came to Ashland, Boyd County, Kentucky. The canvas went up in the field that would later become Hecks and is now owned by Kings Daughters Hospital behind the famous Bluegrass Grill.

My mother, already friends with many performers, knew no strangers and my father, early in his veterinary practice was already becoming known for his skills with circus animals. While there were no official winter quarters for a given show in Boyd County, for over three decades performers were made welcome in the community by my family. By the time I was in grade school, in the 1950's, our tiny house on Algonquin Avenue already had a trapeze bar, tight wire and trampoline placed in the back yard for performers that wanted to practice.

I was taught how to twirl a baton by performer Rusti Delaney. Trapeze artist Jimmy Lloyd helped me with my roller skates. My first elephant ride was on Burma. I still have a letter in my collection from her keeper Lou Turner who taught me how to properly mount and dismount. Ironically Jimmy Lloyd would later be killed by a rogue elephant [while they are magnificent animals I have a great fear of them but always loved & trusted Burma].

In 1959 George Wolfford did an article for the Ashland Daily Independent titled "Circus Clowns Serve As Baby Sitters For Ashland". I made the newspaper seated between Victor Lewis and Coco the Clown. Under my picture it read "Real Life bedtime Stories - Terry Martin,...enjoys true-to-life bedtime stories read by two honest-to-goodness clowns." In the picture I am holding the latest edition of The Billboard as they look over my shoulder.

Victor Lewis encouraged my fledgling attempts at art. Coco, Michael Polakovs, born 1923 in Rega, Latavia married Hazel Fannin and became a resident of Boyd County, Kentucky. He designed the first Ronald McDonald outfit, headlined with Ringling Brothers and was a member of the Clown Hall of Fame. But to me he was my champion & part of my family. When troubled or in trouble he was always there with his gentle smile. In or out of greasepaint he made me laugh.

He was not my father's brother but they loved each other as such and in the world of sawdust it is an honor to give someone a "family title" which could leave genealogists pondering when doing research. He will always be my "uncle Mike".

The Fannin's have a long history and were pioneers in Lawrence and Boyd County. Hazel is the daughter of Harry F. and Madeline Davis Fannin. Madeline was the great grand daughter of David Davis and wife Catherine Bryson. Her maternal lineage includes John and Elizabeth Chadwick Eastham.

Harry Fannin was the son of George and Emma Lambert Fannin. Michael Polakovs came to America in 1953. He was laid to rest in Rose Hill Cemetery, Ashland, Kentucky in December 2009. He leaves a legacy and wonderful family in Boyd County.

My first "gig" was with Coco and Victor around 1960 when they performed at the Children's Home in Ironton, Ohio. I was supposed to squirt water on Coco as part of the "busy bee" skit. Of course I botched it up which apparently made it all the funnier. I went on to do several more one night stands. I was the stooge for Narbu the guerrilla once. I was not supposed to hit him hard with the purse [as per instructions]. I konked him a good one! Again it apparently brought more laughs.

By the 1960's Ashland Oil was presenting a circus each Christmas for employees and family. The performers found their way to our new home. My parents place was named Jomar [for John and Mary Martin]. It also happens to be the name of the rail car that John and Mary Ringling North used. Today there are many homes on Jomar Road that receive mail with that street address but probably don't know the significance or link to circus heritage.

I was an only child but I felt I had siblings. The Wallenda children, Tino and Delilah Zoppe' spent summers with us. Many years later I would fill in for Tino's wife at a show in New Jersey. No laughs, but I am sure he was glad when it was over. All I had to do was smile, hand him props and "ta da." I think he got all his props ok and can only imagine the description he gave Olinka when he got home!

By the time I was 15 I went on the road for several weeks with Kirby's Chimps. The Kirby's were great and it was a wonderful vacation. I had no duties or cares. When I was 16 I traveled with Clyde Brothers Circus for the summer. This time I had to pull my own weight. The Toth's had a roly poly act and I quickly learned to help with set up. I was given a costume and immediately put in Spec and finale and allowed to carry baby Oggie the Orangatang. He was wonderful and I missed him at the end of the season. I also was given my first real job. Under the tutelage of Gee Gee Engesser Powell I became a hawker of cotton candy. Today, tucked away in my jewelry box, among my treasures, is a small silver disk that she gave me when I left the show. It is engraved "Cotton Candy Queen."

My father would later write Doc, My Tiger's Got An Itch which gives a wonderful overview of life and circus friends. Among his narratives he mentions elephant man "Captain K. Y. Seagraves". He was an elephant trainer with Mills Brothers Circus.

K. Y. Sagraves was born Lonnie Virgil Sagraves 17 December 1920 in Boyd County, Kentucky. His father, James A. Sagraves was a boilermaker in the steel mill at Ashland. His mother was Katie Weaver Sagraves. James and Katie are buried in Dixon Cemetery, Boyd County, Kentucky. K. Y. died 24 November 1985 in Ashland.

Boyd County has been entertained by the circus for generations. The Boyd County Library Hanner's Photograph Collection contains ads and billboards for several shows including the announcement that the Forepaugh Show with its Wild West would be arriving in Ashland, October 2nd, 1890 by train.

1923 seems to have been an extremely popular year for circus entertainment in Ashland. An ad for Sparks Circus said they would be at the "circus ground" April 11th. Their ad said there were 350 performers, 2 herds of elephants and hundreds of thoroughbred horses. Two months later in June the Haag Show also played Ashland. The following month, July, the L. G. Heth show with 35 double length circus cars also arrived in Ashland. They were followed by the Al. G. Barnes Circus on August 16th. All these shows and later shows were at 35th & Winchester, the same lot that I remember in the early 1950's.

Nor are circus personalities limited to my life time in Boyd County. In the early 1900's many articles were written about the Nichols Brothers. Howard, Clyde, William, Walter and Millard were the sons of Thomas M. Nichols and his wife Lucretia. In 1910 the family is residing in Catlettsburg. Thomas is listed as an electrician and his sons are listed as traveling jugglers. Articles say that they learned to hoop juggle from their father who never did professional appearances. They played the Hippadrome Theatre in New York. After World War I the brothers scattered. Eventually there were three separate acts under the same name. Howard played in different areas of Europe. Millard, Bill, Walter and Millard's wife Birdie May of Ashland made up another act in the New York area while Clyde and his wife played the Chicago area. Thomas M. Nichols [1868-1945] is buried in Ashland Cemetery.

Gee Gee, my father and Coco have all passed away along with so many others. All have touched my life and left memories. And while the circus has evolved "Sawdust, Spangles & Dreams" never die. The Wallenda's carry on the circus tradition. The family friendships continue into new generations. Their children along with my children share pictures of our grandchildren [thanks to Facebook]. Another generation that have dreams and who can enjoy the wonder of the circus with all its sawdust and spangles.


  1. I am a descendant of the Fannins, great to see their names.

  2. My father was L. Virgil Sagraves (KY) the mills bros. elephant man. I ran across your blog and located a copy of your dad"s book, I really enjoyed the read and the chapter he dedicated to Mills Bros. and my dad. I grew up in Westwood and attended Fairview H.S. I did not travel with my dad, was raised by my Grandparents, KY's mom and dad, but I visited the Mills Bros.Circus
    many times, and once while they were in winter Quarters in Ohio. My dad often spoke fondly of Doc Martin, and I remember hearing his name many times. Thanks for bringing back the childhood memories for me. A Great read. Roy Sagraves, Sept 22 2012 8:30AM PST

    1. Roy so nice to hear from you. I don't think we met as children but I do remember Eunigene. I am glad you enjoyed dad's book. Many good memories!